Category Archives: Two Kingdoms

Calvin’s Theology of Social Justice

Christians sometimes disagree sharply about whether or not witnessing to social justice is part of the church’s mission. Some worry that when the church speaks or acts on matters of justice it inevitably becomes politicized. Even where churches avoid the obvious mistakes of endorsing particular candidates or policy proposals, they inevitably confuse their ideological commitments with the teaching of scripture. Conservative churches begin to sound like the Republican Party at prayer, while liberal churches begin to sound like the Democrats at prayer. Better to avoid matters of justice altogether.

On the other hand, others worry that out of a fear of politicization the church will fall into a passivity that is just as dangerous. By calling Christians to respect and submit to political authority while declining to proclaim a vision of social justice, the church will merely uphold the status quo, thus aligning itself with the powerful elites who benefit from that status quo. The church thus becomes like the servant who buried his talent in the ground so as to avoid using it improperly, and whose fear was judged by his master to be wicked laziness (Matthew 25:14-30).

How is the church to witness to the “kingdom and its righteousness” in a way that avoids these dangers of politicization and passivity? John Calvin argued that if we simply “let the church be the church!,” as some have put it, the church will witness to the justice of the kingdom in ways that are appropriate to its mission: through preaching, the Lord’s Supper and baptism, discipline, the diaconate, and the organic life of the body of Christ.

I explore all of this in my presentation on John Calvin’s theology of social justice, which I recently delivered at the “Jesus and Justice” conference hosted by New City Fellowship in Grand Rapids. I was speaking alongside Mika Edmondson, pastor of New City OPC and author of The Power of Unearned Suffering: The Roots and Implications of Martin Luther King, Jr.’s Theodicy, and Kristen Johnson, a professor at Western Theological seminary and author of The Justice Calling.

For more on Calvin’s theology of social justice, see my book, Calvin’s Political Theology and the Public Engagement of the Church.

Announcing My Forthcoming Book: Calvin’s Political Theology and the Public Engagement of the Church (Cambridge University Press)

I’m excited to announce that my book, Calvin’s Political Theology and the Public Engagement of the Church: Christ’s Two Kingdoms, will final be released next month. You can pre-order it at amazon.com, though it may currently be less expensive if you purchase directly through Cambridge University Press. The book is part of Cambridge’s series of titles on Law and Christianity, edited by John Witte, Jr.

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I’m grateful for the following endorsements from scholars who I greatly admire:

Nicholas Wolterstorff – Noah Porter Professor of Philosophical Theology, Yale University:

It’s a superb piece of work, an important contribution and lucidly written. My guess is that this will become the gold standard in the field. Tuininga’s line of interpretation will be much discussed.

Barbara Pitkin – Religious Studies Senior Lecturer, Stanford University, and President of the Calvin Studies Society:

This is an outstanding piece of intellectual-historical scholarship. It will appeal to historians of medieval and early modern political thought regardless of their personal faith or political commitments.

Michael Horton – J. G. Machen Professor of Systematic Theology and Apologetics, Westminster Seminary California:

Lionized as a founder of modern liberalism and demonized as ‘the tyrant of Geneva,’ Calvin has been used more than understood. Placing the reformer in his own context, Tuininga exegetes primary sources while challenging anachronistic stereotypes. In the process, we meet a complex figure who offers important and relevant insights for Christian political reflection, even in – perhaps ironically, especially in – a secular age very different from his own.

David Little – Berkley Center of Religion, Peace, and World Affairs, Georgetown University, Washington, DC:

Tuininga’s account of Calvin’s thought is original, lucid, well-informed, and timely. It is based on a firm grasp of the primary materials, a comprehensive familiarity with the relevant scholarship, and a challenging interpretation of Calvin’s political theology with important contemporary relevance.

Elsie McKee – Archibald Alexander Professor of Reformation Studies and the History of Worship, Princeton Theological Seminary:

Tuininga’s thoughtful and cogent examination of Calvin’s two kingdom doctrine turns on one of the perceptive distinctions which make the reformer’s thought such a complex yet coherent expression of Biblical commitment joined with practical intelligence. Tuininga appropriately points to the often neglected eschatological dimension of Calvin’s thought to ground the way the reformer clearly distinguishes ecclesiastical and civil while also clearly affirming that Christ is Lord of both – ruling each in specific and distinct ways. The study focuses on the development of the teaching in its historical and religious context, providing a well-organized exposition of the interplay of scriptural exegesis with Calvin’s affirmation of the gift of natural law in the human realm. Tuininga then draws some very timely conclusions about the resources Calvin’s theology can offer for faithful Christian engagement in the modern pluralist world.

John L. Thompson – Professor of Historical Theology and Gaylen and Susan Byker Professor of Reformed Theology, Fuller Theological Seminary:

Tuininga’s book is exemplary and informative not only for its rich display of Calvin’s own thought but also for its serious engagement with the most important political theologians of our own day.   His painstaking examination of Calvin exposes many longstanding generalizations and replaces them with a Calvin who is at once more nuanced, more contextualized, and even more compatible with political liberalism than usually supposed — a Calvin who displays remarkable currency for us today, especially when we see the poignancy and depth of Calvin’s concern for refugees and the poor.

David VanDrunen – Robert B. Strimple Professor of Systematic Theology and Christian Ethics, Westminster Seminary California:

Tuininga provides a clear and thorough account of John Calvin’s doctrine of the two kingdoms, a topic much in need of such a study. The author’s careful reading of Calvin’s texts and thoughtful consideration of his context makes this a landmark work amidst the ample literature on the Genevan Reformer’s political thought. As much as this book contributes to our understanding of Calvin as a historical figure, however, its most important contribution may be its argument that Calvin’s two-kingdoms doctrine provides theological reason for contemporary Christians to support liberal democracy, at a time when many inside and outside the church question its viability. Christians who wish to think deeply about their political identity and responsibilities will find this a richly rewarding work.

And, finally, here is a brief description of the book:

In Calvin’s Political Theology and the Public Engagement of the Church, Matthew J. Tuininga explores a little appreciated dimension of John Calvin’s political thought, his two kingdoms theology, as a model for constructive Christian participation in liberal society. Widely misunderstood as a proto-political culture warrior, due in part to his often misinterpreted role in controversies over predestination and the heretic Servetus, Calvin articulated a thoughtful approach to public life rooted in his understanding of the gospel and its teaching concerning the kingdom of God. He staked his ministry in Geneva on his commitment to keeping the church distinct from the state, abandoning simplistic approaches that placed one above the other, while rejecting the temptations of sectarianism or separatism. This revealing analysis of Calvin’s vision offers timely guidance for Christians seeking a mode of faithful, respectful public engagement in democratic, pluralistic communities today.

If I might say it myself, this book would make a perfect Valentine’s Day gift for that special person near and dear to your heart. It might not seem like the most romantic gift, but I assure you, it is. We are living in the era of Donald Trump, after all.

Not persuaded? Here is the scintillating Table of Contents:

Introduction

  1. Two Swords, Two Powers, or Two Kingdoms: Spiritual and Political Authority in Early Modern Europe
  2. Calvin, Geneva, and the French Reformed Churches
  3. The Kingdom of Christ
  4. Two Kingdoms
  5. Christ’s Spiritual Government
  6. Christ’s Political Government: Early Formulations
  7. Covenant and Law
  8. The Magistrate’s Care of Religion
  9. Law, Democracy, and Resistance to Tyranny
  10. Conclusion: Calvin’s Two Kingdoms and Liberal Democracy

Two Kingdoms and Two Ages: Why Calvin’s Political Theology Remains Relevant

In his article, “Not Two Kingdoms, But Two Ages,” Jonathan Leeman proposes a doctrine of two ages as a helpful paradigm for understanding the relationship between the church and the world. Building on the political theology of Oliver O’Donovan and recent developments in New Testament studies, Leeman offers this as a helpful corrective to various “doctrines of the two” at play in church history, including that of the two kingdoms, which Leeman identifies with Martin Luther.

In fact, there’s good precedent for Leeman’s proposal, and it comes from none other than the 16th-century reformer John Calvin. Ironically, though, Calvin presented his theology in precisely the terms that Leeman opposes: two kingdoms. As I show in my forthcoming book, Calvin’s Political Theology and the Public Engagement of the Church, Calvin’s two kingdoms theology was nothing if not a two ages eschatology. It was his attempt to explain how the future kingdom of Christ (the age to come) breaks into the present age even while the present age continues. The two ages overlap, and Christians inhabit both at the same time. As a result, Christians are subject to a “twofold government,” to two different kinds of authorities, which Calvin called two kingdoms (Institutes 3.19.15).

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Calvin often described these two kingdoms by distinguishing between what’s earthly and what’s heavenly in human beings, or between what’s inward and what’s outward. But Calvin didn’t use these terms to denote a dualistic view of humans any more than the apostle Paul when speaking of the contrast between flesh and Spirit.

Rather, Calvin used “inward” and “heavenly” to refer to the age to come, which breaks into this age through the inward work of the Holy Spirit in the life of believers—even as from an outward and earthly perspective things seem to go on as they always have, under the shadow of death and decay.

Read the rest of this article at The Gospel Coalition.

Good News for the Poor: John Calvin and Social Justice

When John Calvin became pastor in Geneva most Protestant churches didn’t have deacons responsible for caring for the poor. In the medieval church the diaconate had become an office with largely liturgical responsibilities. Most Reformed churches, following Ulrich Zwingli and Heinrich Bullinger, assumed it was the state’s responsibility—not the church’s—to care for the poor.

Calvin decisively rejected all of these views. Identifying the church as Christ’s spiritual kingdom, Calvin insisted that the church must witness to the justice and righteousness of Christ’s kingdom in its own way, in accordance with Christ’s commands. This meant that, as one of the church’s essential ministries, it had to call men and women to serve in the spiritual office of deacon.

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Calvin, like other Christians before him, believed God has given the earth and its resources to human beings. As those made in the image of God, we’re called to share our resources and serve one another. Calvin often used the language of rights to describe this principle. A person is defrauded, he argued, when a need is left unmet by someone with the power to meet it.

Caring for the poor, then, isn’t a requirement of charity but of justice, a basic demand of natural law. God is the “protector and patron of the poor,” Calvin says, the one who hears their cries and “feels himself injured in their persons.” Therefore, he won’t let their afflictions remain unavenged.

Read the rest of this article at The Gospel Coalition.

What is Two Kingdoms Theology? My Conversation with Joe Boot

Thanks to the Ezra Institute for posting this audio of my conversation (it was more of a conversation than a debate) with Joe Boot about two kingdoms theology, held at Spring Creek Canadian Reformed Church in Vineland, Ontario, on April 28, moderated by Arnold Viersen, a Member of the Canadian Parliament. The first part of the audio consists of my 40 minute presentation on two kingdoms theology.

What was fascinating about the discussion was the way in which Joe’s critique of two kingdoms theology and my presentation of it passed each other like two ships in the night. Joe focused on David VanDrunen’s work, while my work has been based almost entirely on John Calvin’s theology. There is a lot of overlap between these, of course, but there are also differences.

The conversation illustrates the importance of exploring two kingdoms theology not as a modern phenomena, let alone as the product of one scholar or institution, but as a rich legacy of the Reformation now going on 500 years old, and with obvious roots in the New Testament and Augustine. Once Joe and I were able to do that in our conversation, we discovered much more agreement than disagreement.

My take? The flag-waving and intramural competition that has characterized conversations about the two kingdoms needs to stop. Christians are in uncharted cultural territory. We have a lot of thinking to do about how to engage our increasingly post-Christian cultures in ways that reflect the gospel and witness faithfully to Christ. We will all do this a lot better if we can learn to think together rather than always to argue with one another.

The Kingdom and Its Righteousness: Rightly Defining the Spirituality of the Church

Sean Michael Lucas’s fascinating book, For a Continuing Church, highlights in no uncertain terms the vital importance of the doctrine of the spirituality of the church to the origins of the Presbyterian Church in America (PCA). Next to the authority of Scripture, no other commitment played a more important role in forging the identity of the evangelical Presbyterians who established the PCA. These Presbyterians insisted that the Presbyterian Church in the United States (PCUS) had exchanged its spiritual mission of evangelization, summarized in the Great Commission’s call for the church to make and train disciples (Matthew 28:19-20), for the activism of the social gospel.

And yet, Lucas’s book also makes clear just how misleading these evangelical Presbyterians’ self-understanding was. For in point of fact, they were just as concerned about the social and political impact of Presbyterianism as were their progressive rivals, and just as likely to use their religious authority to argue against communism or racial integration as were their opponents to argue against the Vietnam War or segregation. As often as not, it seems, the spirituality of the church doctrine was invoked simply to shut down efforts that were deemed too progressive, only to leave the church free to proclaim the implications of Scripture for a conservative social worldview. In short, many of those who appealed to the doctrine interpreted it through the lens of their own reactionary politics rather than from the standpoint of the gospel of the “kingdom of God and his righteousness” (Matthew 6:33), biblically understood. The whole church, the right wing as well as the left, was all too politicized.

Read the rest of this article at Reformation 21.

Interview About Calvin Seminary Appointment With Glenda Mathes

At her blog Glenda Mathes has kindly posted her interview with me, which appeared in the August issue of Christian Renewal, following my appointment as assistant professor of moral theology at Calvin Seminary. Glenda concludes the article with my comment on the need for a fresh vision for faithful Christian witness:

We need a vision for faithful Christian witness that is thoroughly Reformed and evangelical. Given the times in which we live, faithfulness will require a greater willingness to be conformed to Christ in his suffering. Standing for the faith, for love, and for justice in conformity to God’s will for his creation is going to be costly. We need to have a clear understanding of the gospel, and we need to recover a clear understanding of what is means for the church to be the church—in preaching, the sacraments, discipline, and the diaconate.

You can read the whole piece here.

Trump, Cruz, and the Politicization of the Gospel

At First Things Richard Mouw joins in on the criticism of Jerry Falwell, Jr., who praised Donald Trump as “one of the greatest visionaries of our time” who “lives a life of helping others . . . as Jesus taught in the New Testament.” Mouw agrees with Southern Baptist leader Russell Moore that Falwell’s comments about Trump politicize the gospel. As Moore tweeted, “Politics driving the gospel rather than the other way around is the third temptation of Christ. He overcame it. Will we?”

What is interesting about Mouw’s piece is that he admits that in the past Calvinists have sometimes failed to overcome that third temptation of Christ. Even more interesting is that he points to Abraham Kuyper as a helpful corrective to this tendency. For those who are used to placing Kuyper in stark opposition to Reformed two kingdoms theology, Mouw’s brief description might begin to free them of that misguided tendency. Kuyper believed all of life falls under the lordship of Christ, of course, as did the classic Reformed two kingdoms tradition, but he also argued that Christ’s lordship calls for the sort of politics that embrace a democratic religious pluralism, as have some more recent Reformed two kingdoms advocates.

Mouw writes,

Mr. Trump promised his Liberty audience that if elected he will “protect Christianity.” People who love the Christian faith certainly could do with some protection these days. But the religious freedom we long for has to come as part of a larger movement for justice that generates a more comprehensive vision for a pluralistic society. It is in the service of that broader vision that we can avoid, as Russell Moore nicely put it, a pattern of “politics driving the gospel rather than the other way around.” If Jerry Falwell, Jr. wants some theological help in understanding that vision, I have a 19th century Calvinist whom I can recommend on the subject.

Falwell is not the only conservative Mouw might have criticized for politicizing the faith. Senator Ted Cruz apparently declared to his followers, “If we awaken and energize the body of Christ – if Christians and people of faith come out and vote their values – we will win and we will turn the country around.” “I want to tell everyone to get ready, strap on the full armor of God, get ready for the attacks that are coming.”

Christians should be very wary of candidates who identify their campaigns so closely with the purposes of God and the gospel faith, just as they should be wary of candidates who needlessly alienate Muslims and those who practice other faiths. Mouw is correct. Justice is nothing if not comprehensive in its vision for a pluralistic society.

You can read the rest of Mouw’s piece here.

Martin Luther King Jr. and Gospel Politics

Reformation 21 has published the third part of my series on Presbyterians and the Political Theology of Race. It is entitled “Gospel Politics” and seeks to contrast King’s tendency to approach politics from the perspective of the gospel to the segregationists’ tendency to approach politics from the perspective of the Old Testament. At the heart of it lies King’s critique of the southern Presbyterian doctrine of the spirituality of the church, a doctrine that had a lot in common with a certain contemporary version of the two kingdoms doctrine. As King put it,

I have heard numerous religious leaders of the South call upon their worshipers to comply with a desegregation decision because it is the law, but I have longed to hear white ministers say, ‘Follow this decree because integration is morally right and the Negro is your brother.’ … In the midst of a mighty struggle to rid our nation of racial and economic injustice, I have heard so many ministers say, ‘Those are social issues with which the gospel has no real concern,’ and I have watched so many churches commit themselves to a completely otherworldly religion which made a strange distinction between body and soul, the sacred and the secular.

What was King’s alternative? Whereas conservative southern Presbyterians tended to interpret the relevance of God’s natural moral law for society and politics through the prism of the Old Testament, King interpreted that same law in light of what he understood to be the meaning of the Gospel for the dignity of the individual human being.

Read the article here. Read parts 1 and 2 in this series here and here.

The Gospel IS Social

One of my friends and former professors, R. Scott Clark, insists that “The Gospel Is Not Social” (on the Heidelblog, here, and republished on the Aquila Report, here). Not only is the gospel not social, Clark argues, but harnessing the church to any sort of social agenda “has always threatened the mission of the church: ‘the pure preaching of the gospel of free acceptance with God by grace alone, through faith alone, in Christ alone; the pure administration of the sacraments, and the use of church discipline.’

It is only a slightly more moderate version of the concern raised by Darryl Hart (on his blog here):

I’m not sure that the gospel and ethics should be so closely identified. I believe the gospel is about what God does in Christ for sinners and ethics has something to do with the way the redeemed respond to God’s grace in their lives by following God’s law.

I could begin to respond by asking so many questions: To Clark, does the preaching of the gospel not also extend to sanctification, freedom from the domination of sin in our lives? Are the sacraments not explicitly social in character? What is church discipline if not a social enterprise? To Hart, is not the sending of the Spirit, who empowers us to a life of new obedience, part of what God does for sinners? And what must I make of Paul’s exhortation in Romans 6 that we should do good because we are not under law, but under grace?

But let me step back a moment. What does Clark mean when he says the gospel is not social? His primary concern, it is clear, is with a resurgence of a specific historic version of early twentieth century Christianity, the Social Gospel. Here, I want to say right away, I wholeheartedly share his concern. As a movement characterized by theological Liberalism the Social Gospel abandoned or reframed fundamental doctrines of the Christian faith and poured its energies into a secular enterprise of social transformation. This was a bad thing. We don’t want to see a revival of the Social Gospel. We cannot transform this world into the kingdom of God; we can only witness to what God is doing in us through Christ.

But Clark goes further than this. Appealing to J. Gresham Machen’s doctrine of the spirituality of the church, which he identifies with John Calvin’s two kingdoms doctrine, Clark argues that “social concerns” are outside of the scope of the gospel. Thus Machen, in his official capacity as a gospel minister, “refrained from speaking to social concerns because of the teaching of the New Testament. Read on its own terms, the teaching of the New Testament about the Kingdom of God is remarkably silent about the pressing social concerns of the day.”

Does Clark forget how much the New Testament has to say about justice for the widow and the orphan, good news for the poor, the oppression of the weak, marriage, slavery, the breakdown of social barriers (between Jew and Greek, slave and free, male and female, Barbarian, Scythian), violence, reconciliation, sharing with those in need, the diaconate, obedience to civil authority, families, peacemaking, or any other number of vices and virtues that pertain to relationships between human beings. What version of the New Testament is he reading? In what world are these not pressing social concerns?

Perhaps the problem is in our use of terms. Note that Clark is not merely saying the gospel is not political. He is not simply saying the gospel doesn’t have a lot to say about particular social policies. He is saying that the gospel is not social. He is saying the New Testament doesn’t have much to say about social concerns.

So we need to know how Clark is defining his terms. He writes, “By social I mean broader cultural and civil concerns that are not ecclesiastical.” This is a pretty open-ended, yet imprecise, definition. What is Clark considering to be “ecclesiastical”? Are Paul’s concerns in Colossians 3 ecclesiastical? Is Jesus’ teaching in Matthew 25 ecclesiastical? Is marriage cultural and civil?

We can make more headway in understanding what Clark is doing when we look at how he defines the gospel. He writes, “By gospel I mean the message of Christ’s incarnation, his substitutionary suffering active obedience for his people, his death, burial, resurrection, ascension, and return.”

What do we make of this definition? To a certain extent I like it, and yet it puzzles me with regard to what it chooses to include and what it chooses to exclude. On the one hand, it summarizes the key events that make up the good news of salvation: Christ’s incarnation, suffering, obedience, death, burial, resurrection, ascension, and return. I like this. On the other hand, it adds a reference to the substitutionary purpose of that suffering and obedience (a good thing!) while omitting any reference to the giving of the Holy Spirit and the way that he empowers Christians to a new life of righteousness. In short, it seems to reduce the gospel to justification, forgetting all about sanctification (much as Hart’s quote above seems to do).

Why?

Sit down, open up your New Testaments, and ask yourselves, is this presentation accurate to the New Testament? Does Paul only care about justification, the forgiveness of sins, or does he also care about the way in which the Gospel frees us from the bondage of sin for a new life of Spirit-empowered righteousness? Does he only speak of the forgiveness of individuals, or does he describe the way in which Christ establishes the church as a new humanity, a new community, a new social reality characterized by love, justice, compassion, forgiveness, reconciliation, and peace? Does he leave Christians to act within fundamental social institutions, such as marriage, the family, and the master-slave relationship, as was customary in pagan antiquity, or does he call Christians to be transformed according to the mind and example of Christ in the way they love and serve one another, to the point of self-sacrifice?

The gospel is social. It is social to the core. Individualism is no orthodox corrective to the theological liberalism of the past. Saying that because the Social Gospel was heretical therefore the gospel is not social is like saying that because the Roman Catholic Church is in fundamental error therefore the church is not catholic.

Let me be clear. As any reader of this blog knows, I am a strong advocate of two kingdoms theology. I have summarized it here, here, and here, and I wrote my dissertation on John Calvin’s version of it. But Scott Clark’s version and Darryl Hart’s version is not the Reformed version. And it is not just their conclusions about religion in the public square that are different. These are fundamentally different political theologies.

Yes, Calvin argued, and rightly so, that the church should only proclaim what the Word teaches. The church should stay out of public policy debates. Yes, Calvin argued, and rightly so, that the kingdom of Christ is spiritual. It cannot be conflated with the moral transformation of secular society. But Calvin also affirmed that the Word teaches much about society and that the church must proclaim these teachings. And when he said that the kingdom of Christ is spiritual he meant essentially that the kingdom of Christ is eschatological, not that it has no implications for material social life (as I show here). Remember, we are talking about the theologian who recovered and reestablished the diaconate as a spiritual, materially oriented office (again, as I show here). I have written much about this and will not rehash it all here.

Scott and Darryl are both friends to me, and I am grateful for all they have done for me over the years. But their thinking on these points is not clear and it is not helpful. It is hardly likely to persuade anyone tempted to embrace the Social Gospel, given that it merely presents an individualistic and virtually neo-Platonized gospel as the alternative. An excellent corrective to this tendency is Michael Horton’s Covenant and Eschatology.

We need to get the gospel, the whole gospel, right.

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